International Slavery Museum:

Museums and Sensitive Histories

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This presentation wi ll discuss some of the experiences of the International Slavery Museum (ISM), part of National Museums Liverpool (NML), around subje cts whi ch have often bee n regarded as unrepresentable, looking at some of the issues, concerns and the resulting actions of ISM in developing, displaying and interpreting its collections around the legacies of transatlantic slavery and modern forms of slavery, and its aim towards becoming an active campaigning museum.
Background to ISM

National Museum Liverpool’s previous focus on slavery, the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, which opened in 1994, won worldwide recognition and was central to the development of ISM. Although innovative for its time, the gallery had become dated in the 13 years since its opening and it was felt that the subject of slavery needed greater recognition through the establishment of a museum in its own right. The new museum is now three times the original size of the previous gallery and occupies a more prominent position on the third floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum; housing a resource centre and a response zone as well as display space split into three galleries; Life in West Africa, Enslavement and the Middle Passage, & Legacy.
The display galleries of ISM opened on 23 August 2007. Marking not only the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade Act but also the day designated by unesco as Slavery Remembrance Day, the anniversary of an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue – modern Haiti in 1791. A strong reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation. ISM is located on Liverpool’s Albert Dock, at the centre of a World Heritage site and only yards away from the dry docks where eighteenth century slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out. To put Liverpool’s role in the slave trade into a bit more context; By the 1780s Liverpool was considered the European capital of the transatlantic slave trade. Vast profits from the trade helped to physically transform Liverpool into one of Britain’s most important and wealthy cities. Other European ports were heavily involved too, but in total more than 5,000 slave voyages were made from Liverpool. Overall, Liverpool was responsible for half the British slave trade, and her ships carried approximately 1.5 million enslaved Africans into slavery. The stark fact is that Liverpool was quite simply, at the epicenter of the transatlantic slave trade. This is the reason why ISM is ideally placed to elevate this subject onto an international stage.
The museum seeks in its capacity to increase public understanding of transatlantic slavery and its legacies working in partnership with other museums and institutions with a focus on freedom and enslavement and provides opportunities for greater awareness and understanding of the legacy of slavery today. It is a campaigning museum and an active supporter of social change and social justice. Since 2007 there have been almost 2 million visitors. However, from the beginning there were plans to develop ISM further.
Progress of ISM
By 2008 NML had purchased the Dock Traffic Office on the Albert Dock, which is adjacent to the Merseyside Maritime Museum. By 2013 this building will become the new ISM entrance and will accommodate education and research facilities, a multimedia centre, a collection’s centre and community spaces. The multimedia centre will give visitors access to slavery-related digital archives, including Black British media and human rights films and documentaries and also enable visitors to research family and local history. The collections centre aims to exhibit all accessioned ISM objects in a publicly accessible and interactive storage and display area. In essence, we want the museum to be seen as a resource, a tool to use in a multitude of ways, ways that are not necessarily led by the museum.
As mentioned, ISM aims through its permanent displays, exhibitions and educational activities, to contribute to a changing public social agenda. That is, to become a tool for members of the public to use in such a way that will not only enhance their understanding of the past but how that past, and the many legacies which come with it, affect their current day-to-day activities, opportunities and aspirations.
One of the ways in which we as a museum aim to do this is to become an active supporter and vehicle of social change and indeed a political campaigner in the field of human rights. Historically museological thought has disagreed with the idea that it is the duty of a museum to actively engage with political issues, but rather be a neutral space for visitors to gain an objective view of the subject matter. We disagree and feel that museums are by their very nature active agents of social change and should actively seek to do so. Dr David Fleming (1)- Director of National Museums Liverpool at the opening of ISM stated « This is not a museum that could be described as a’neutral space’ – it is a place of commitment, controversy, honesty, and campaigning ». Janet Marstine (2) had earlier echoed these sentiments, « Museums are not neutral spaces that speak with one institutional, authoritative voice. Museums are about individuals making subjective choices ».
Alongside this, museum professionals and visitors alike should beconscious of the words of the historian Eric Foner (3) who notes « History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives ».
These discussions were central to the development of one of the more disturbing yet constructive juxtapositions within the International Slavery Museum – the relationship between the Ku Klux Klan outfit, which was donated to ISM in 2007, just a few months before its opening, and our Black Achievers Wall situated within the Legacy Gallery. This juxtaposition lends itself to the words of Barbara J. Little (4) Editor of Cultural Resources Management: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship who observes, « Our experiences with our histories can leave us both heartened and dismayed, sometimes simultaneously ».
In various community consultation sessions arranged prior to opening on 23 August 2007 a recurring theme was that the museum had to carefully balance the horrific and often visceral presentation of transatlantic slavery against a backdrop of resistance and indeed African and Black achievement. It was a challenge but one, we feel in this instance, we managed to get just about right. It is a simple display in a sense and it does exactly what it says, it is a Black Achievers Wall, encompassing achievement across the arts, sciences and sporting world, the idea for which came from the author Ray Costello, one of the Liverpool Black communities most prominent local historians. It is just one of several attempts at addressing, and challenging, the very real issue of leaving the museum and associating African and Black history with transatlantic slavery solely, or indeed with a solely negative history. This is especially the case for those, of all ages, who know very little about the subject of transatlantic slavery or indeed African history before their visit to the museum.
It is a balancing act, allowing visitors to understand amongst other things British and European involvement in transatlantic slavery and their role in the enslavement of Africans, but at the same time, making Africa and Africans the central agents of the whole museum narrative. One of the ways to do this is to start with areas of achievement, often born out of resistance, as a starting point to the narrative of transatlantic slavery and its legacies; a way for some audiences in essence to begin their journey, their dialogue with the subject.
As soon as one walks into the Legacy Gallery it is difficult not to catch a glimpse of the Black Achievers Wall. It has a central prominent position. It sits close to the Ku Klux Klan outfit but is not dominated by it, providing for our audiences a compelling example of how the museum has been able to represent the complex legacy of achievement versus oppression which permeates the histories of the Black Diaspora.
Campaigning through collections
As mentioned earlier, the museum is striving towards being an active supporter and vehicle for social change. One of the major challenges the museum is striving to address is the commonly held belief – often expressed by many of our visitors through comments left in the museum’s response zone – that slavery is something’thankfully’ consigned to the history books.
Through new partnerships with human rights organisations such as Stop the Traffik and Anti-Slavery International a’Contemporary Slavery’ collection strand is being developed, alongside an already well established transatlantic slavery collection. The collection will highlight contemporary forms of slavery such as bonded labour, early/ forced marriage, forced labour, slavery by descent, human trafficking and child labour. The collection will be used as an interpretive tool to ignite discussion and dialogue about contemporary slavery, to support campaigns and raise awareness. This new strand is now active alongside several others, such as the Black Diaspora strand, a social and cultural history collection, which will reflects countries that have a link to transatlantic slavery, focusing in particular on Black presence in the UK and more specifically the experiences, identity and culture of Liverpool’s Black community, their relationship to the city and the impact of social, political and economic change on their lives. Another strand’Racism and Discrimination’ focuses on the impact of racism as a legacy of transatlantic slavery, mainly highlighting manufactured items often depicting racist imagery and racist stereotypes of people of African decent. This material is usually American or British in origin and is often referred to as’Americana’ or’Black Memorabilia’.
The first accessioned object within the contemporary slavery strand was Missing (2007) by the British artist Rachel Wilberforce; a series of photographs which depict scenes of a slave trade which still thrives, illustrating how much slavery is still very much a contemporary issue. Photographed in urban and suburban Britain, the images depict sextrafficking and prostitution; the interiors and exteriors of working or derelict flats, brothels and so-called massage parlours. They are devoid of people, yet at the same time reveal human activity. Missing; responds to the psychology of sexual exploitation; the loss of identity; a sense of displacement; violation of human rights and the clandestine nature of the crimes.
From this visually evocative work the museum then went on to acquire two ankle bracelets from Anti-slavery International. One of the bracelets was’worn’ by a young woman in Niger who was subject to a form of descent based slavery.
Descent based slavery occurs in some countries where people are either born into or are from a group that society views as suited for being used as slave labour. People from this group are not allowed to own land or inherit property and denied an education, a status which is carried from one generation to the next. The bracelets are currently being displayed in a new display case in the Legacy Gallery. In recent discussions with Anti-Slavery International (ASI) a number of partnership options were considered that could further develop the museum’s aims towards becoming an active social campaigner.
Firstly, ISM hosting a regional forum for active ASI members (largely Liverpool and Manchester based). Secondly, the development of a joint action plan, which ISM and
ASI could sign-up-to. This would be more than simply a memo of understanding, with both organisations committing to leading on specific action over the forthcoming years, with discussions even proposing the idea of ISM becoming the official national depository of ASI’s historic archive containing material spanning more than 200 years on the subject of slavery and the anti-slavery movement. In this way, well documented and provenanced material can be regularly accessed by the museum for display, educational and research purposes.
The benefits to the NGO’s is that sensitive yet powerful material can be preserved and made accessible to the wider general public which in turn would be of benefit to their campaigns. These discussions follow in the footsteps of a series of successful collaborative events and programmes between ASI and ISM. Our first collaborative exhibition called’Home Alone: End Domestic Slavery’, highlights a two-year Anti-Slavery International campaign intended to raise awareness about the plight of domestic workers in the UK and internationally.
Historically, domestic work has been a sector which is vulnerable to abuse, and this is still the case today. Domestic workers lack legal protection and the campaign is hoping to bring about a change in the law to protect domestic workers in the UK and abroad. Visitors to the exhibition are asked to get involved by writing to their local MP to urge the UK government to support international measures to provide protection for domestic workers.
It is an exhibition that makes a clear statement that the museum is an active campaigning museum and is located within a new public space called the Campaign Zone, an exhibition and community space where the museum is able to highlight current human rights campaigns with accompanying community and education programmes.
In Conclusion
All of these issues have been challenging but also useful as we plan the next phase of the museum’s development which I mentioned earlier, in particular the layout and design of the collections centre where we aim to have 100% of our collections on open storage and display.
The museum aims to develop new collections of international importance which reflect the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade but also tackle the issue of slavery in the modern-world. As the museum’s contemporary slavery collection grows, as its partnerships with human rights organizations develop, museum staff will have to make difficult decisions about how much we expose our visitors too. Indeed, to place 100% of our stored collections on open display to the public, many of which highlight such sensitive and disturbing aspects of human cruelty and injustice, in a form that educates and challenges without creating a’shop of horrors’ for the visitor, is one of the challenges the museum still has to face. The museum aims to inform and hopefully inspire the public to action. Not only do the plethora of positive and supportive comments left in the museum’s response zone give a good indication that the aims and objectives of the museum are being met, but events in the new Campaign Zone have been well attended and a number of human rights organisations are keen to get involved and host events. The continued growth in NML visitor figures from 2000 (5) through to the current age of austerity shows that people still value museums; they value our expertise and they value the opportunity to see, feel and touch the past, albeit a past firmly anchored in the nuances of today.
Dans sa présentation, Stephane Carl Lokko revient sur l’expérience du Musée International de l’esclavage à Liverpool. Ce musée a remplacé la Galerie sur l’esclavage transatlantique ouvert en 1994 au musée maritime. L’espace est trois fois plus grand et occupe une place plus proéminente au troisième étage du Musée Maritime Merseyide. Il a ouvert le 23 août 2007, date anniversaire du bicentenaire en Angleterre du décret abolissant la traite et date désignée par l’Unesco comme Journée du souvenir de l’esclavage pour marquer le premier jour de l’insurrection des esclaves à Saint-Domingue en 1791, afin de nous rappeler que ce furent les esclaves africains qui furent les agents de leur propre libération. Dans les années 1780, Liverpool était la capitale européenne de la traite transatlantique. Des profits importants transformèrent la ville en une des villes les plus riches d’Angleterre. Plus de 5 000 expéditions négrières partirent de Liverpool transportant 1.5 millions d’Africains en esclavage. La ville était au centre du système esclavagiste européen.
Le musée a pour objectif d’élever la conscience des publics sur l’esclavage et la liberté. Depuis son ouverture, il a accueilli plus de 2 millions de visiteurs. Un de ses objectifs est d’être actif dans le champ social et la lutte pour les droits humains. Nous ne sommes pas d’accord avec l’approche qui fait du musée un lieu neutre, au contraire nous pensons que le musée doit être présent dans le champ social. Dr David Fleming, directeur des musées nationaux de Liverpool déclarait lors de la cérémonie d’ouverture « Ce n’est pas un musée qui peut être décrit comme neutre, c’est un musée où l’engagement, la controverse, l’honnêteté et l’action citoyenne sont encouragés ». Janet Marstine l’avait dit plus tôt : « Les musées ne sont pas des lieux neutres qui parlent d’une seule voix, la voix institutionnelle. Les musées sont des lieux où des individus font des choix subjectifs ». Avant son ouverture, l’équipe du musée avait organisé des rencontres avec les publics. Ce qui en ressortait c’était le désir de voir un équilibre se faire entre montrer l’horreur de la traite et de l’esclavage et célébrer la résistance et les réalisations et les créations des Africains. Nous avons répondu à ce défi en réalisant le Mur de la Réussite Africaine, en faisant le portrait de Noirs qui ont excellé dans les arts, les sciences et le sport. Mais le musée veut aussi être actif dans la campagne contre les nouvelles formes d’esclavage en réalisant des expositions et en organisant des rencontres autour de ce thème. Nous voulons inciter les publics à agir.

1. – David Fleming, Opening of the International Slavery Museum,  [] opening_speech.aspx (accessed August 31, 2010).
2. Janet Marstine, New Museum Theory and Practice (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 2.
3. Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), xvii.
4. Barbara J. Little, « Introduction, » CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship Vol. 7 Number 1 (2010): 4.
5. National Museums Liverpool, Annual Review 2009 – 2010 (Liverpool: National Museums Liverpool, 2009), 4-5.
///Article N° : 11536


Laisser un commentaire